Be aware of the free beta service
16 01, 2010  - todd

Often start-up companies in the tech industry will roll out services labeled as “beta” for potential users (future customers) to try, give feedback, troubleshoot and generally refine prior to full deployment, whether that service in its non-beta form is still free, paid or ad-supported. There is nothing wrong with this of course but people need to be aware of the pitfalls that may loom on down the road:

  • The service may disappear – possibly taking all your data with it
  • The service may be flaky – possibly taking all your data with it…
  • The company may decide to charge prices that you feel are not substantiated by the value of the service – this is the most common

It seem some companies use the “beta” label to lure customers in, get them dependent or at least comfortable with the services, often with a large amount of data and configuration input over the course of months or years, and then announce the service is out of beta and the paid price for the service is more than you feel is reasonable. You are left with the choice of abandoning the service or paying more than you want.

For the last year we have been using a free “beta” service called ArtistData to provide the “Upcoming Shows” feed you see on the right side of the page. This service is a good one and very useful to musicians and artists. It syncs shows with MySpace, Facebook and other online calendars and much more. Unlike some companies ArtistData has always said the service will be paid, in some form at some price point, in the future – there was no “bait & switch.” They solicited financial support from users who felt the product had real value for them during the beta – I gladly made a donation, along with feedback as to what I felt the service was worth to me, what I would be willing to pay on a monthly basis, once it came out of beta.

Today the company announced that the service has gone into its paid status. To their credit they have left some of the core functionality free and created an a la carte store for services as well as service bundles to try and fit the needs of their users. The problem is for the services currently in our account it’s yet another monthly fee that exceeds the price point I feel is reasonable: $120 to over $300 per year. Granted I need to look at the services we are actually using regularly and see if we can get by on a few a la carte offerings, but if not, well, we are back to square one. I don’t fault ArtistData at all for the way they have done this – in my opinion they have handled it in a straightforward, considerate and forthright manner. I fully knew that there was a possibility I wouldn’t like the pricing and made the decision to invest my time and energy anyway. Still I wish the pricing was closer to what I had hoped it would be. I wonder how many users will jump ship at $10/mo. who would have stayed at $5-6/mo…

So next time you sign up for a free service labeled as “beta” or without a clear pricing stated on down the line, understand you might be helping create someone’s business model at your expense, now and later. There is no free lunch. Unless you are an attorney.

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